This story from the folks at The Onion is predictably great. Not for the first time they’ve made mirth from the religious-like fervour that any new Apple launch, or Steve Job’s utterance, inspires in the faithful. This time The Onion imagines the launch of a new iPhone that can only be seen by true Apple believers (and hence is invisible to those not cool enough to see).
It’s funny entirely because we all know a believer. It’s the zealotry of those believers that every Marketing department in the world envies and why pretty much every business is looking for ways to emulate Apple.
A meeting I was in recently turned to a discussion of the kinds of brands that inspire this degree of unquestioning, wallet-loosening loyalty. Alongside Apple, Virgin was consistently mentioned, as was, interestingly, KiwiBank.
I think there are two really interesting issues in this. Firstly, all the brands mentioned are as much defined by what they’re not, as by what they are. Apple is not Microsoft. Virgin is not British Airways and KiwiBank is not BNZ. Secondly, they all have an individual who embodies the brand, who showcases its ethos in word and deed.
On that basis one could argue that what allows a brand to transcend conventional levels of brand loyalty is the presence of a natural enemy, and an inspirational figurehead to be personally loyal to (and, in the best of all possible worlds, an equally public nemesis with whom to battle).
This is resoundingly true of the only other brand I can think of that inspires adulation at a level approaching Apple’s – Barack Obama. There’s absolutely no doubting the credentials of the man but I don’t think it unfair to say that without George W Bush to follow, reaction to (and expectations of) Obama might have been slightly more measured. (In fact Obama got the double whammy of being neither a Clinton nor a Bush.)
Which is interesting, but raises an obvious question from a marketer’s perspective. Is it good fortune that presents a brand with a foil, or can you cultivate a natural enemy?
My guess is that it’s a combination of the two. I think you can do a good job of exposing the soft underbelly of an unsuspecting competitor, exposing weakness as Apple has so consistently and brutally done to Microsoft. But you need a complicit competitor to really make it happen. You need something to reinforce or embellish, so the competitor needs to be heading down the path of its own volition (again, ideally led by an unlikeable, or at least polarising, leader).
You also can’t really manufacture the kind of messianic individual who tends to create this kind of organisation. Sure you can grow legend, but you’ve got to be building on something real and genuine, something admirable and embraceable. That’s what separates Steve Jobs from Mark Hurd and (and I can scarcely believe I’m writing this) Jim Anderton from Andrew Thorburn.
Anyway, my prediction is this: someone will make a fortune by not being Facebook (and, importantly, not being Mark Zuckerberg).
In recent months Facebook has made a disastrous attempt to launch an invasive advertising programme, proposed draconian changes to user terms and conditions and been public about plans to place Facebook at the centre of how the web is organised.
Somewhere out there is Mark Zuckerberg’s natural enemy.